Just like their predecessors Yeltsin and Clinton, presidents Putin and Bush enjoy a strongly personalized relationship. This chemistry, says Ehsan Ahrari, will be the defining factor in maintaining Russia’s relations with the west at a time of growing stresses and disagreements –

The relationship between Russia and the US under George W Bush is similar in so many ways to that under his predecessor, Bill Clinton, that one is reminded of the old adage: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they remain the same).

Clinton was criticized for overly personalizing America’s foreign policy with Russian president Boris Yeltsin. It became too much of a “Bill” and “Ol’ Boris” (Clinton’s standard reference to Yeltsin) show.

Bush is well on his way to personalizing in a similar way his foreign policy with “Pootie Poot” (Bush’s nickname for president Vladimir Putin).

Of course, Clinton did not give the world a memorable, albeit somewhat comical, assessment of Yeltsin after their first meeting — as did his successor after first meeting Putin.

Bush announced with confidence: “I looked into his [Putin’s] eyes and was able to glimpse into his soul.” Clinton used a mixture of flattery and empathy in dealing with Yeltsin from his very first encounter. Strobe Talbott, US deputy secretary of state for most of the Clinton presidency, presents a fascinating account of his former boss’s perspectives of Yeltsin and his dealings with the former Russian president in his insightful book The Russia Hand.

From the earliest days of his presidency, Clinton genuinely believed in and was concerned about the continued growth of democracy in Russia.

He admired Yeltsin for having the courage and audacity to be an iconoclast in Russia at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union – but even more so when his country was undergoing serious turbulence stemming from the introduction of market-oriented reforms between 1994 and 1998.

Yeltsin chose democracy as a permanent path for Russia when it would have been more convenient for him to go with another form of authoritarianism. His faith in democracy, at least as indicated by his public behaviour, never wavered.

In that sense, Clinton rightly judged Yeltsin to be a Russian hero. When Yeltsin took power, the outcome of competition between the US and Russia had already been decided.

The Soviet Union had imploded, bringing an end to the Cold War. The US was now the only superpower, and, as such, saw itself as the “winner” of the 45-plus years of intense competition.

Russia, the chief successor state of the Soviet Union, was a defeated country in the sense that it was no longer a superpower.

Even though no documents of its “ultimate surrender” were signed – in the manner of the surrender of Japan or Germany, for instance – Russia was symbolically to sign such documents quite frequently.

Such moments came when Russia agreed to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s air campaign against the Bosnian Serbs, then to the expansion of Nato and after that to the inclusion of the Baltic states in the Nato alliance. They occurred again when Russia watched in frustration as Nato side-stepped UN approval and carried out an extensive air war against Yugoslavia, in retaliation for Slobodan Milosevic’s nefarious ethnic cleansing of the Kosovar Albanians.

In each instance, Russia’s initial response was a categorical “nyet”, to forestall American action, but that begrudgingly turned into “da”.

One can only recall how the US gradually, but with perverse consistency, changed its own positions and broke promises made to Russia.

For instance, James Baker, US secretary of state under president George Bush senior, originally promised Mikhail Gorbachev that if a united Germany became a member of Nato there would not be any eastward expansion of the alliance – not even an inch, as he initially phrased it. As Baker put the question to Gorbachev: “Would you prefer a united Germany with ties to Nato and assurances that there would be no extension of Nato’s current jurisdiction eastward?”

Baker later claimed that by accepting a unified Nato in Germany, Russia accepted the principle of Nato expanding eastward.

But in all fairness, Yeltsin’s own statement that Russia would have no objection if Poland joined Nato was considered a major breakthrough for Nato membership as far as the central European countries and the border states of the former Soviet Union were concerned.

Talbott’s book is an excellent narrative of the ease with which the US changed its mind on a number of strategic issues.

Clinton was very clever in telling Yeltsin how important it was for Russia to agree to Nato expansion, just to convince the central European countries that it had changed its political personality forever. He used similar arguments to persuade Yeltsin to agree to the inclusion of the Baltic republics.

The US under Clinton was not willing to guarantee Russia that it would not station nuclear weapons. On that particular issue, the US argument was that as long as Russia did not become a threat to the security of central European states, such guarantees were not at all warranted.

Nato expansion was going to take place with or without Russian willingness to go along with it. Moscow’s approval was never a vital precondition. Clinton only went through the ritual of extracting Yeltsin’s “approval”.

One such episode involved the issue of former Soviet republics joining Nato. Yeltsin pleaded with Clinton not to proceed with it. He even suggested an oral agreement to that effect.

But when Clinton made a series of forceful arguments against it, Yeltsin finally gave up by dejectedly stating “well, I tried”. It was a pathetic performance for a head of a wanna-be superpower.

The same observations apply to all other issues of US-Russia relations since the early 1990s. The greatest credit should be given to Yeltsin for his determination to argue Russia’s case and look for the best possible deals from the US, even from a position of weakness.

However, the US should be similarly complimented for remaining a magnanimous winner. It never took its eyes off the need to keep Russia engaged – to strengthen the political position of pro-democratic forces in that country, and to ensure that the ultra-nationalist and communist forces did not gain an upper hand with spurious promises of materializing the instant re-establishment of Russia’s superpower status.

Russia needed economic assistance, and the US remained in the forefront of championing it and, more to the point, putting together substantial packages of economic assistance.

Russia needed to be engaged in military-related multilateral arrangements, and the US extracted its assent for participating in the “Partnership for Peace” arrangement. Even Russia’s potential membership in Nato, though always a painful topic for Moscow, was kept alive through regular dialogues on the subject. Russia finally became a participant through the Nato-Russia Council on May 28, 2002.

Clinton’s handling of US-Russia relations established those traditions, and they are continuing under George W Bush. As much as Bush disdains his predecessor, his foreign policy toward Russia – as well as toward other regions – may best be described as an extension of Clinton’s. As Clinton did with Yeltsin, Bush established personal ties with Putin. Similarly, Bush remained warm toward Putin even while he was abandoning the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in December 2001.

This was a development that Russia resented – just as it had resented Clinton’s decision to expand Nato, or the alliance’s war against Yugoslavia.

But Bush seems to comprehend fully the power of personal chemistry in conducting high-stake great-power relations. He expressed his determination to pursue his personal ties with Putin in an interview with Peggy Noonan, a journalist who was also his father’s speechwriter.

In that interview, he spoke sympathetically about Putin’s challenges. Putin, he said, faces “anti-American bureaucracy” that is a “hangover” from the Cold War years.

He added: “The best way to welcome him to the west, and to encourage him to make the right choices in terms of the rule of law and transparency and defence measures, is to break down any barriers that he may have.”

Compare Bush’s statement with Clinton’s 1998 reference to Yeltsin: “The thing about Yeltsin I really like is that he’s not a Russian bureaucrat. He’s an Irish poet. He sees politics as a novel he’s writing or a symphony he’s composing. That’s one of the things that draws me to him. It’s why he’s better than the others. But it’s also his shortcoming. I’ve got to convince him that for the next two years, he’s got to come to work every day and be a bureaucrat and make the government work.”

Like Yeltsin, Putin is also making the best out of an asymmetric relationship with the US. Presiding over Russia – where there are plenty of people who resent the contemporary state of affairs between their country and the US – and finding solutions to heady issues of mutual concern that make Russia look like a winner requires finesse, shrewdness, flexibility and, above all, patience.

After becoming president, Putin came out swinging. At first he was vocal about his resolve to re-establish Russia’s primacy as a great power. Now he is pursuing that goal in his own way, in a low-key but deliberate manner – traits that clearly signal that he is maturing in office.

The record of Russia’s gains under his leadership is indeed impressive. Russia has been accepted as a market economy by the EU, one of the world’s up-and-coming economic powerhouses, and also by the US.

It is making steady progress toward entry into the World Trade Organization. Russia is expected to become a member as soon as it fulfils the WTO’s “universal accession requirements”.

These include:

  • implementation of “important economic adjustments” that would enable it to comply with WTO requirements;
  • elimination of tariffs on certain goods;
  • the creation of a non-discriminatory and transparent environment for foreign goods and services;
  • reform of the financial and banking sectors;
  • and the introduction of decisive measures to protect foreign investors and intellectual property rights.

In the last summit of the Group of Eight (G8), Russia was formally accepted as the eighth full member. As such, it will participate in financial discussions as well as political ones, and, most important, will host the G8 meeting in 2006.

That in itself is billed as one of Putin’s major accomplishments. And his personal ties with Bush were crucial in achieving those steps.

If there is a blueprint for Russia’s emergence as a great power in the economic and military spheres, the trailblazing work in terms of developing US-Russia relations was done by Yeltsin and Clinton. But the bulk of the credit should go to Clinton. Putin and Bush are wisely continuing the legacy of their predecessors. There are many global issues that could put the Russia-US relationship under enormous stress in the coming years.

However, the web of complex interests that unite these two great powers should also keep them from straying too far apart even when they strongly disagree.

Ehsan Ahrari
Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is professor of national security and strategy at the US Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia. This article represents the author’s independent views.